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How Barbecue Takes Over the Thanksgiving Dinner Table in Texas

Texas Holidays Food + Drink
by Elisabeth Sherman Oct 28, 2020

The most legendary, most iconic food in Texas is probably barbecue, so it should surprise absolutely no one that Texans have brought their beloved slow-roasted and smoked meats to the Thanksgiving dinner table.

The average Texan isn’t a pitmaster so this is one Thanksgiving tradition that’s harder to prepare at home. But in the lead up to Thanksgiving, barbecue joints across the state step up to offer a bevy of dishes for the reluctant cook and barbecue enthusiast alike.

Turkey can be one of the most time-consuming — but arguably the most necessary — Thanksgiving dishes to prepare. Going the barbecue route takes the stress out cooking the perfect turkey. One of the most famous barbecue spots in Houston, Killen’s Barbecue, offers 17-pound smoked turkeys, which Houstonia writes exudes aromas of “hickory, mesquite, oak, and pecan.” Miller’s Smokehouse in Belton pit smokes whole turkeys for Thanksgiving.

According to Texas Monthly, the smoked turkey craze might have begun in Fort Worth in 1936, when a woman known only as Mrs. Potisham advertised her recipe in a local newspaper. By 1946, barbecue restaurants began adopting it onto their menus. Since then, smoked turkey has become a staple alongside pulled pork, brisket, and beef ribs.

Every year, list after list of Texas barbecue restaurants appear online detailing the numerous barbecue dishes that Texans can add to the dinner table: smoked sausage, turkey legs, smoked ham, pork shoulder, pork ribs, and turkey breasts. If you want to simplify Thanksgiving by letting the masters cook it for you, there very likely is a barbecue restaurant in Texas that has your back. The only work that is required is the pickup.

But there are also plenty of Texans who find ways to bring barbecue to the table through their own handiwork: Mexican flavors and ingredients permeate all aspects of Texas cuisine, and around Thanksgiving, you’ll find families of all backgrounds get together to make tamales by hand, in a gathering called a tamalada. Slow cooked brisket tamales are a particular favorite, another nod to the fact that Texas is famous for its barbecue brisket.

Brisket might be the classic option, but around this time of year, tamales filled with shredded pork, chicken, sweet corn, black mole, black beans and cheese, red chilies, or fish are all popular varieties. As Eater puts it: “Tamales are really Texas’s best holiday dish.” Tamales are so popular in places like Houston on Thanksgiving and Christmas that some restaurants have to prepare for the so-called “tamale rush.”

Today, it’s surprisingly easy to add a little bit of that Texas smoke to your turkey no matter where you live: In an interview with The Manual, John Lewis, of Lewis Barbecue fame, says that barbecue obsessed homecooks can smoke their turkey on a grill, or add liquid smoke to the turkey brine. Pitmaster Matt Dallmann, of 18th and Vine BBQ in Dallas, takes a slightly different approach: He first smokes his Thanksgiving turkey for several hours before frying it, in order to “seal in the juices.” A Texas style smoked turkey might also be seasoned with a barbecue rub consisting of chili powder, black pepper, cumin, and paprika, or a similar combination of spices.

When it comes to sides, there are other, barbecue adjacent, ways that Texans add verve to Thanksgiving dinner: A classic Thanksgiving dish, brown sugar glazed sweet potatoes, gets a Texas twist with the addition of bacon. Cornbread (a classic barbecue and Thanksgiving side) sometimes gets a kick from sliced jalapeños, while spicy chorizo — of which Texans are especially fond — tossed with cornbread and herbs is a popular variation on classic stuffing. And the signature ingredient in Texas-style mac and cheese is roasted poblano or green chilies. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be a Texas Thanksgiving dinner without a spicy kick somewhere on the table.

Even dessert can’t escape the reach of Texas barbecue’s influence: The smoky flavors of barbecued meats find the perfect pairing in bourbon infused pecan pie.

In Texas, barbecue is a way of life, not just a Thanksgiving tradition. But if you want to embody the spirit of Texas barbecue during the holiday season, it’s clearly easy enough. Whether you prefer the traditional turkey infused with barbecue spices or you adapt a slow-cooked brisket recipe for tamales, a Texas Thanksgiving is within your grasp, no matter where you live.

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